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November 15, 2004



I always thought Lake Woebegon was in Minnesota. "On the edge of the Prairie"; Do they have Prairie in Wisconsin?


I'm sure they've got some kind of Prairie somewhere in Wisconsin, but yes, Lake Woebegon is in Minnesota.


I stand cheerfully corrected. The spelling, however, does seem to be "Wobegon", without an extra "e", or so the prairie home companion web site says.


"I have over 750 students a year. Of those, only a small number will make the effort to have contact with me. Relatively few will come in and talk about their ambitions, their goals, their ideas, their doubts, and so forth."

That seems to be true for most college instructors and profs, Hugo. It's unfortunate, but still true. In the six and a half years I've gone to college, I can only remember one instructor that I enjoyed talking to during his scheduled office hours. However, it's not just the students who always lack in attention and willingness to talk with their profs - some of the profs can be the same way, too.


To clarify my last statement, I mean that some profs do have office hours but, depending on time constrictions or attention spans or something else that's distracting them, won't always be willing to discuss anything with the students who come to see them. Just take care of the current problem or answer the question in a limited amount of words and see the student on his way - that sort of thing.


Letters of recommendation sounds horribly like our reference system; students applying to university have to get a reference from each subject teacher which are then used by tutors to compile one super-reference which is sent with the application.

I've just done mine, and had to nag my subject teachers to do them early (the deadline for oxford and cambridge is 3 months earlier than other unis), I really feel for anyone having to write so many of the things, make them all unique AND juggle the normal amount of work too!


I haven't been asked to write any letters of recommendation (so far!) but I am quite often listed as a reference by students who used to work for me. The good ones will do the proper thing and ask me ahead of time, but more often, a student who barely got by will list me as a reference without checking with me first. In those cases, "Jane did exactly what was required of her" is one of my favorite lines. It's all in what's not said, of course.

Once I had a student who had, for all I knew, dropped off the face of the earth months before listing me as a reference for a job she had applied for with the Department of Defense. Imagine my surprise when a DoD guy showed up at my office all black-suited and wanting answers to his questions!

This poor girl had signed her life away to the DoD, and so we had a very lengthy conversation about her. What annoys me to this day is that, despite my very candid and honest assessment of this student's abilities, she got the job she'd applied for. The man who'd visited me was convinced that whatever problems B might have had with her job must have had something to do with my managerial skills. Grr.


I once worked at an admissions office at a pretty competitive four-year university. It was fairly easy to recognize the "template" letters of recommendation (at least it *felt* obvious). Letters with specific anecdotes and descriptions of the student always stood out far more and meant more than letters that praised someone to the sky in vague terms without real details. And I know that many graduate programs (at least the smaller ones) actually keep track of what frequent letter writers say from year to year... if every year someone has a student who is "the best they've ever had" their credibility goes out the window pretty fast.

So when you're on your fiftieth letter wanting desperately just to use a template, take heart! I think it does make a difference.


Everyone I write for has at least one good feature, else I don't write the letter. I write very few letters because I have few trainees. It is simple to write the letters in a mostly positive way, since "good citizenship" or "good organization" or "good communication skills" can be highlighted if the trainee is only average in technical proficiency.

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